While the children in this area often have farm roots, many of them have  lost access to their family farms as grandparents have moved to town. Citing a need for families to have a place to bring their children to experience a part of farming, Dan and Sarah Brouwer of Brouwer Berries, in Raymond, Minn., labor in the fields throughout the growing season to provide sweet strawberries to an eager public.

Photo by Patti Loeppke

“Before we got married, Dan visited me in Ontario, Canada, and we took him to a local strawberry farm,” Sarah recalled. “A lightbulb went off in his head, as he realized that there was nothing like that in his hometown of Raymond, and that it might be a way for him to pursue his passion to farm, without having to acquire vast tracts of land.”

Understanding that the climate in Minnesota is much harsher than southern Ontario, the Brouwers spent over a decade slowly experimenting with different varieties and techniques.  “Strawberries are a perennial crop, and any new varieties take three to four years to fully test,” said Sarah.  Their goal was to find plants that could handle harsh weather extremes while still producing massive, juicy red strawberries that would delight the people who visited their farm.

“I love watching the faces of newcomers as they round the bend through the grove, and see row after row of sparkling red berries. The scent of the fruit hits them, and there is a collective gasp,” Sarah smiled.

Because of the changing nature of farming in the area, fewer families have access to farms. U.S. Census data reports, “In 2012, U.S. farmers were older and more diverse than in 2007, the last time the agriculture census was conducted. The total number of farmers declined, with the percentage decline more for women than men.” Statistics like these highlight the importance of farms such as Brouwer Berries.  

“I’ve had all sorts of strange questions from children,”  Sarah said. “They have seen broken eggshells by the cats, and exclaimed about kitties being hatched.  Parents are so glad to have a destination where their children can experience a bit of the labor and sweetness of farm living.”

Taste the Difference

Dan and Sarah plant new strawberries each spring. Those baby plants must be weeded, watered, and covered with straw for 15 months before they are ready to harvest. Their land is divided into blocks of baby plants, blocks with mature plants ready for harvest, and blocks with cover crops to replenish the soil. Each block gets two years of harvest and a full two years of cover crop before being replanted.

Piper Swart with one of the bunnies at Brouwer Berries near Raymond.

Joyce Flock, of Ghent, Minn., said, “Strawberries that are there are the best of any place, reminds me of the ones I picked in Oregon when I lived there.  They were large and sweet with lots of flavor.”

“The secret,” asserted Sarah, “is in the dirt.”  California strawberries have been grown on plastic, out of soil that has been fumigated, and then the fruit is sprayed with all kinds of chemical nutrients. “At our farm, we replenish the soil with cover crops such as sorghum sudan grass, winter rye, and peas, slowly improving the organic content of the soil so that the strawberry plants have natural access to the nutrients they need before harvest.”

“My kids loved it. It was a really good experience being out in the field picking strawberries and looking at the animals. Everything was great with great customer service,“ said Joe Martinez, one of many who took his children out for the experience.

The petting zoo has slowly evolved, as the Brouwers realized that families wanted more to do to extend their stay at the farm.  Children can climb into the cage with the bunnies and chicks, and feed the goats and baby calves. Ducks swim in the pond, as grandparents sit in the shade watching their grandchildren play in the sandbox.

Dr. Emily McDevitt of ACMC Willmar was astonished during a visit to the farm, “My daughter came running to me to tell me the goat was having a baby. She got to watch the birth of twins!”

Farm Experiences Build Character

“We need a place for children to learn and play on farms,” said Sarah, who has talked to countless people about their memories of growing up on a farm, and each one insists that the farm developed their character.

“Growing up on the farm taught us what faith was,” reminisced Kevin Wassenaar, of Prinsburg, “because in the spring dad and grandpa were putting crops in the ground and you didn’t know if you’d have crops at the end of the season.  The fall was always my favorite season, because it was the fruition of the labors and prayers of the summer and spring.”

Caden, Grant and Janessa Erickson picking berries for their mom, Tessa, while she was at work. Photo by Dennis Benson

“The thing about growing up on the farm is the work ethic that you built, because you all helped,” explained Becky Graves, of Raymond, who brings her children to Brouwer Berries every summer.  “We had pigs, so when we had to move pigs we’d all be involved, herding them to where they needed to go.  It didn’t always go according to plan. We all helped clean out the building when there was a change of pigs.  All of us kids would be in there to clean it down – power wash it, except we didn’t really have a powerwasher.  Sometimes it was just a finger on a hose, or a nozzle thing, and spraying it all down, and we’d get it all over ourselves.  So, sometimes if my kids complain about something, like dishes or cleaning their rooms, I think, ‘that is not work!’  So, you just really learn what hard work is… not pleasant. I can’t say I liked it, but now I look back and say, ‘That was really good.’  We learned how to work hard, and that you were all a part of it, you all helped each other in your family.  Good lessons.”

“My grandparents, Bill and Arlene Wilson, used to operate Lost Valley Orchard, an apple orchard near Hawick, Minn.,” said Kareen Hayden, of Spicer. “ I grew up in Bloomington, and my parents and two brothers would go out every weekend throughout the spring, summer and fall to work in the apple orchard. Even though we were an apple farm, we’d go to a nearby strawberry farm in June to pick berries.  I would sit close to my mom, and she would teach me which ones to pick and which to leave so they’d reach their fullest potential.  That lesson carried over into picking apples.  My grandfather passed away about 13 years ago, so the farm is no longer in operation, but we definitely appreciate local farmers and all that they do for the community.”  Kareen found out about Brouwer Berries this winter and is looking forward to June and the opportunity to pass her mom’s lessons on to her own children.

Happy pickers finding lots of big, ripe berries last season. Photo by Patti Loeppke

A Three-Week Harvest Window

People who want the chance to get these sweet local strawberries sign up for Brouwer Berries’ email or postcard list and watch the farm on Facebook.  The harvest window is only three weeks long. When the berries are ripe, long lines of cars start coming to the farm.  They park in a field, then come to the strawberry patio to be greeted by Sarah and her daughters.  There, they can choose to buy strawberries picked by someone else early that morning, or be given a tray and a ride out to the field to pick their own.

“All the strawberries are sold the day they are picked, or else put in the freezer for jam,” smiled Sarah. “When we say fresh and local, we mean it!”

“The strawberries are absolutely delicious–as are the jam and pies,” reviewed Wendy Thoen, of Willmar. “We really enjoyed sitting and relaxing for a bit at the pond where your little son visited with us. We also enjoyed the funny duck who seemed to take a liking to my husband as he followed him. Great and fun place to visit!”

“I took my two year old with, and we had a wonderful time. Although, I think he had more fun eating them off the plant rather than putting them in our pail,” commented Jackie Smith, of Willmar. “Thank you so much for the tractor ride, it was nice to have the help with a busy toddler.”

Don’t Miss Out

    To make sure you don’t miss out on the short strawberry season, email sarah@brouwerberries.com, call her at (320)967-4718 to receive a postcard when the strawberries are ripe, or learn more at  www.facebook.com/brouwerberries or www.brouwerberries.com.